The merry, interactive nature of sharing a pot of cheese fondue makes for an unforgettable, belly-pleasing gathering. And by “fondue” we mean the creamy, mind-popping experience featuring world-class ingredients. What’s more, a road trip to gather the cheese, wine and brandy from the source for an Oregon-inspired fondue will take you deep into the corners of the state where a rich alpine influence still thrives.
Crafting a Good Fondue in Oregon
A good fondue relies on good ingredients. The traditional Swiss version has at least two cheeses: Le Gruyère, not to be confused with American Gruyère, and Vacherin Fribourgeois, a semihard cheese. Emmental, the original hole-riddled cheese we often just call “Swiss,” is a common substitute for those who prefer a milder cheese.
All fondues need a crisp white wine and a splash of cherry brandy called kirschwasser or kirsch for short. A thickener like corn starch helps give the dish its classic creaminess. Some chefs add lemon juice and a dash of nutmeg. All of the ingredients go into a fondue warming pot called a caquelon that should be rubbed with garlic first. Kara’s Kitchenware in Bend carries authentic Swiss ones.
Finding Oregon Cheeses to Melt
To make the Oregon version of this classic dish, point the car to the Tualatin Valley about 15 minutes west of Portland and to the hamlet of Helvetia — the Latin word for Switzerland — where Swiss immigrants settled in the 1800s. Back then a farmer named Peter Grossen made his way here from the Bernese Oberland, imported a handful of Swiss brown cows and started making traditional alpine cheeses. The Helvetia Creamery was born.
Today Dave Grossen and his family still run the micro-farm and milk five cows to make traditional cheeses like Bergkäse, or mountain cheese, and Apfelheller, Grossen’s take on the Le Gruyère of Switzerland. For the rinds, the Grossens wash the cheeses in cider made by their relatives at the nearby Helvetia Cider Co.
Come the holiday season, the creamery sells premixed, 1-pound fondue packets. Look for the cheese at farmers markets in Beaverton and Lake Oswego. The Helvetia Farm Market and the Orenco Station Sunday Market in Hillsboro carry them, too. You can find the Grossen family fondue recipe online.
Vacherin Fribourgeois, the classic semihard cheese in many Swiss-style fondues, is carried by Cowbell cheese shop in Portland for a limited time right around the holidays. For even more cheese options, the Oregon Cheese Guild has a Cheese Trail and maintains a list of shops around the state that carry local cheeses. The Good Company Cheese Bar and Bistro in Newberg carries an impressive list of cheeses and does wine pairings. (Cheese lovers should also save the date for The Wedge cheese festival in Portland in September.)
Sourcing Oregon Wine and Spirits to Add
To melt the cheese and add traditional flavor, you’ll need both a special white wine and kirschwasser, a cherry spirit. Traditional Swiss fondues use a dry white wine called fendant that goes right into the caquelon with the cheese. Unfortunately, the Swiss export almost none of their wines but fortunately there’s Oregon and the Laurel Ridge Winery in Carlton.
The winery is one of the few Oregon producers of chasselas doré, the same varietal behind fendant. These were the very first grapes that the Teppola family planted when they started the winery in 1980. Today the winery produces just 50 cases or so of chasselas out of the 5,000 other cases of wine produced annually, and it tends to go fast. “It has a definite following,” says owner Susan Teppola.
To get a bottle, it’s best to swing by the winery as quantities can be limited. If you can’t get one, the winery also makes a sauvignon blanc that would work beautifully. Pro tip: Use any dry white wine for cooking the cheese and save the Laurel Ridge bottle for serving during dinner.
For the kirschwasser, Oregonians are in luck. To find it, plan a trip to the cherry-rich region of Hood River. Clear Creek Distillery, a division of Hood River Distillers, offers tours by appointment, and experts there can show you how they make a spectacular kirschwasser using Bing cherries sourced from the same local orchard for the past 30 years. “The fruit is so fresh and so sun-ripened that we can’t let them remain in the distillery for more than an evening or they begin to juice themselves,” says Joe O’Sullivan, master distiller. “If we get a shipment in on a Tuesday, we crush them on a Wednesday, pits and all.”
The whole process takes about two months, including a distilling process that uses traditional Arnold Holstein pot stills and Champagne yeast. Mix a few teaspoons of corn starch into a shot of kirschwasser and add that into the cheese to thicken it. The potent spirit is so delicious it’s worth sipping through the meal on its own. If you can’t make it to the distillery, the spirit is available statewide at select liquor stores, too — look for it labeled both as cherry brandy and kirschwasser on the bottle.
Try These Fondue Restaurants in Oregon
Swiss immigrants settled in Mt. Angel in the late 1800s, naming the town 20 miles northeast of Salem after their home, Engelberg, Switzerland. The Glockenspiel Restaurant in town serves fondue with a Swiss cheese base and Bärenjäger, a honey liqueur instead of kirsch. You can even get a fondue to go.
For one of the most authentic Swiss-style fondues, head to the Swiss Hibiscus restaurant in Portland, where you’ll find all manner of other Swiss specialties including rösti (a robust hash-brown dish), älpler magronen (the original mac ’n’ cheese) and spätzle (a cross between a dumpling and pasta). Urban Fondue in Portland offers various twists on the classic cheese fondue including some made with smoked cheddar and others with Brie and Gorgonzola. The traditional fondue gets an Oregon upgrade with Willamette Valley black truffles.